The Rhône-Alps region has the Rhône, with its lush vineyards, fields and countryside, art-inspiring mirror lakes and scattering of Roman ruins, and the freshness of the Alps, for fascinating caves and mountain peaks that both create and provide those chocolate box perfect alpine views - charming hamlets included.
You can get around the valley via boat, bike, or on foot, but it can be quite civilised to take the train: the region is well serviced by TGV (Trains Grande Vitesse). The main towns are only a short train ride from each other, yet have surprisingly varied views, so you can see a lot more of the more highlights by popping between towns.
Lyon has the kind of transport links you'd expect of France's second largest city, so this is the starting point for all these Rhône by rail jaunts. Famed for its silk and its food, served in bouchon style restaurants, and with Beaujolais to the north, and the Côtes-du-Rhône to the south providing the accompanying wines, this is the kinda city that knows how to live well.
Lyon also has some impressive art within its city limits, some of it displayed at the Musée des beaux-arts de Lyon, whose collection of Egyptian artefacts was started by the Louvre, and some of it performed at the Lyon National Opera House. For architecture, and a gorgeous church fix, visit the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière: like Sacré-Coeu, perching white and graceful on a hill (over an old Roman ampitheatre), and St-Martin-d'Ainay: small, Romanesque and fortress-function-over-form, a place of protection as well as prayer.
For a wider snapshot of Lyon's history try the Historical Museum of Lyon & International Puppet Museum, the Lyon Resistance Museum, or the Lumière Museum.
For more advice about what to see and do in Lyon, visit the Place Bellecour with its statue of Louis XIV and tourist information pavilion.
Lyon – Vienne (TER train – about half an hour travelling time)
Right on the banks of the Rhône, Vienne was the capital of a Gaulish tribe before the Romans arrived in 47BC. It's now littered with Roman ruins; and those, and the jazz festival held in July, are some of the main reasons visitors visit.
The Roman Temple of Augustus and Livia, in the middle of town, is one of the best preserved Roman sites and it's still in use as a museum. Similarly, the church of Saint-André-le-Bas is one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in the Rhone and a now Museum of Christian Art. And the other main man made attraction, Vienne Cathedral, offers photogenic river views and impressive stonework.
Vienne - Saint-Etienne (SNCF train -about 40 mins)
Local to the Loire gorges and Pilat Regional Nature Park, in a very vert region – made greener by the golf course close to the centre of town - this city is an industrial and design hub, with one of France's most popular football teams. Ironwork is the big thing here and Saint-Étienne is a meeting of industrial heritage and modern design. Thus the St-Étienne Museum of Modern Art, with more than 15,000 pieces, is a popular place to visit, as is the Museum of Art and Industry.
Saint-Etienne – Lyon (TGV train – about 50mins)
Taking the waters: North Rhône-Alps
Heading north out of Lyon trains travel though verdant land, past vast and lovely lakes. There's no return trip along this route, you either have to travel back the way you came or go on from Geneva.
Lyon – Aix-les-Bains (Lyon-Saint-Exupery Station, TGV train - 1 hour 20 mins)
One of the prettiest spots on the eastern side of Lake Bourget, with a view to the mountains on the western side, this town has been thought of as a good place to 'take the waters' since Roman times when it was a baths town, appreciated both for the lake waters and for the thermal springs - which are hot enough in some places to burn the skin.
The Faure Museum, just as famous for the burglary that happened here a couple of years ago as for the collection including Rodin, Degas and Cézanne, and Hautecombe Abbey, where the royal family of Savoy are buried, are the best known indoor attractions in Aix-les-Bains - this is mostly a spot for water related activity.
Aix-les-Bains – Annecy (TGV train - 30 mins TGV)
'Take the waters' on Lake Annecy, which Annecy sits beside, while admiring the Alps in the background, and explore the maze of narrow streets between mansions and chateau, passing along the canals by the Palais de l'Isle, a triangular shaped castle-nee-prison sitting in the waters, then visit the Château d'Annecy home to the Counts of Geneva. For art appreciation visit the Cathedral of Saint-Pierre, which has some impressive Baroque pieces, for architecture see the romantic arches of the rue Sainte-Claire and for shopping peruse the boutiques of the rue Royal. Finish your day with a stroll across lovely, iron Pont des Amours (Lover's Bridge).
Annecy - Geneva (SNCF train to Gare Eaux-Vives Station – 1 hour 20mins)
It would be easy to spend a week or more visiting pretty French hamlet after pretty French hamlet, but this itinerary sticks to the main lines which have the fastest and most regular services.
Lyon – Chambéry (TGV train - 1 hour)
Chambéry has grown out of its valley to include the vineyards of the Combe de Savoire, and almost to the edge of Lake Bourget. The grand Château de Chambéry attests to this towns importance to the House of Savoy, but the much less graceful Fountain of Elephants is the city's major landmark – possibly for some of the wrong reasons. The city's carillon has more than 70 bells so if you don't see it you can't escape hearing it.
Chambéry - Aix-les-Bains (TCV train - 30 mins)
Aix-les-Bains – Grenoble (SNCF train- 1 hour 40 mins)
At the feet of three alpine ranges, and often referred to as the French the 'Capital of the Alps', Grenoble's setting is more dramatic than serene – think mountains and cave systems. To the north is the Chartreuse, to the south and west the Vercors, and to the east the Belledonne range – and the Tour de France loves Grenoble for it. The main visitor attraction is Grenoble's Bastille more a small fortified hill than a fort, with the world's oldest cable car ride going up to the top – for some very special views.
Grenoble's Art Museum comes with an impressive reputation and an even more impressive collection of art, but the main reasons to visit Grenoble are its natural assets and the things you can do in amongst them.
Grenoble - Valance (SNCF train - 1 hour 30 mins)
Provence starts here – you can tell, the air is warmer and filled with the fresh smells of eucalyptus and pine and the light is a different colour, giving everything a greener sheen – like it's more alive. The locals brag that you can taste the difference in the food, and they pride themselves on the flavours on offer in their restaurants, markets and bars. As well as being proud of what they grow, the Valentinois are also proud of their architecture: their tourist board recommends Valance Cathedral, the ornately carved facade of the Maison des Têtes, and the door of the Maison Dupré-Latour – it's 16th Century, with a frame that's apparently worth writing home about.
Valance - Lyon (LGV train – can be done in less than 30 mins if you get a fast train)
Lyon – Vienne (TER train – about 30 mins travelling time)
Vienne - Saint-Etienne (SNCF train - 40 mins)
Saint-Etienne – Lyon (TGV train – 50mins)
It's easy to organise getting to Lyon by rail. From the UK it's a Eurostar jaunt via Paris or Lille, then a TCV transfer before you're tasting off the Rhône-Alpes cheeseboard delights of Tomme and Reblochon, Blue de Bresse and Picodon. Washed down with a Beaujolais, a Côtes-du-Rhône or a Savoie white wine while you watch the world pass by your train window.
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